Mummies from the monks' corridor in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo.

Grieve like a Sicilian

My experience of the Sicilian tradition of the Fiera dei Morti and Notte de Zucchero

Lidia Zuin
8 min readDec 13, 2023


At the beginning of this year, I read the book “This Party is Dead: Grief, Joy and Spilled Rum at the World’s Death Festivals” by Erica Buist. Just like me, she is a journalist who has embarked on several trips around the world to see the many ways different cultures deal with death.

This all started after her father-in-law died suddenly at his home and stayed there with no attendance for eight days, so there’s all the drama about deterioration, putrefaction, and so on. “Funny” enough her husband seemed to have dealt much better with the loss of his own father whereas she tried to find out in other cultures what they could possibly do when they lose someone and how this could possibly help her cope with it.

That said, do I recommend this book? No, definitely not. I think I made some comments in previous newsletters, so I will spare you from a new ranting session. Still, it was through this book that I learned about some Italian festivities: the fiera dei morti (the fair of the dead) and the Notte de Zucchero (sugar night). These festivities happen around the time of Halloween and the Day of the Dead, so last week of October and the first days of November.

For the past years, the Sicilian government has been promoting celebrations around that with traditional Sicilian puppet theater shows, parades, art exhibitions, markets, and activities for children. Catania and Palermo are the two main cities where these things take place, so that’s where I planned to go.

And when I say plan, I say it in the Scandinavian (or anxious) way — months ahead. But this is not the way Sicily works. In fact, they only published the programme of the Notte de Zucchero a few days before it started. A big “fuck you” to foreigners and tourists. But it’s ok, I’m latina, I can survive chaos… I think?

There was nothing happening in Catania when we arrived there. Our host, who was Italian, didn’t even know anything about the fiera dei morti or where it was going to take place. He thought it was going to be in a cemetery, but it turned out to be in a much less charming place: a parking lot near the airport.

It was a struggle for us to get there using public transportation, but Catania’s news website said the fair was pumping with over 150 stands. My husband doubted me, but it turned out that the fair was indeed huge. Hundreds of people attended it on a Sunday night, proving that workdays are just some faraway concept you can totally ignore in Sicily.

But the funny and slightly upsetting thing is that the fair looked like a bigger version of Festa Junina fairs that we have in Brazil, meaning that there were even the same playground attractions that we used to go to when we were teens — as in Crazy Dance, Kamikaze etc.

The guy is literally leaving the fair with broom sticks in his hands

Then, I thought the stands would have handmade products, artisanal stuff, especially the marzipan fruits that are common in the region. Nope. There were people using microphones to announce how their squeegee was effective, there were stands selling fake branded products (like fake Nike trainers and GAP hoodies), random trinkets for only 1 euro, kitchen appliances and stove burners. The music was deafeningly loud and I don’t think it was even in Italian, but something more generic like Miley Cyrus’ Flowers. Real bummer. But anyways, we still had our hopes high for Palermo.

Marzipan sweets and biscuits designed after Halloween themes and also Sicilian traditional marzipan fruits.

And that’s where the fun started. I mean, “fun”. The fair there was really small, as in having only six stands selling biscuits and sweets, esoteric goods, jewelry and accessories in general. At least they weren’t Chinese imported products, but artisanal creations, which was good. But the peak of it was the announcement that there was going to be a theater performance inside the Capuchin Catacombs, a spot I wanted to visit anyways.

That’s a place you cannot film or photograph, so I don’t have any original footage, but… I was baffled, even speechless. I’ve been to several bone churches and cemeteries, I have joined Mexicans singing and dining over the tombs of their loved ones during the Día de los Muertos, I have seen many relics of saints, and I’ve been to other catacombs before… but this one was just something else.

Why? It’s a place packed with mummified corpses, skeletons, caskets, bodies hanging from the wall, lying on shelves, dressed up in common clothes, tagged with their names and other info, just there for you — there are not even grids to separate you from them in some parts. You could touch them if you want, though you shouldn’t.

More precisely, according to Wikipedia, “the catacombs contain about 8,000 corpses and 1,252 mummies (as stated by last census made by EURAC in 2011) that line the walls. The halls are divided by category: men, women, virgins, children, priests, monks, and professionals."

And on that Halloween night, a couple of actors embodied the spirits of some of the dead found there, and how they realized they were put in the catacombs. My Italian is very poor, so I couldn’t understand much of it, but I think they were portraying the most famous people that are “buried” there, including the “world’s most beautiful mummy", Rosalia Lombardo, who died in 1920, and still looked like this in 1982:

The next day, we went to see a parade of local bands and dancers cruising the main street of Palermo. It was a very beautiful celebration, though I don’t think it ever mentioned anything about the day of the dead. It was also chaotic since bus drivers seemed to be not aware of the parade, so there were huge buses passing by the dancing groups and musicians. Not sure how pleased the passengers were, but I didn’t even see anyone filming it from the windows.

In spite of Italy being a very Catholic country, it was interesting to see how many shops, restaurants and pubs were decorated with Halloween props, and several people were dressed up in costumes on the night of the 31st of October. We also found a big statue of la Catrina, the Mexican skeleton character that is iconic to the day of the dead celebrations there.

Funny or globalized enough, if you see the Notte di Zucchero official website, you will find that Sicily has a partnership with Mexico for the day of the dead. I suppose this has to do with the fact that, for the past few years, Mexico has been investing and supporting more celebrations around this date to promote tourism. This all happened after one James Bond movie featured a fake day of the dead parade and then tourists started to flock to see that in person, though apparently it isn’t as organic as it should or could have been.

It’s also worth mentioning that the events I attended in Palermo were mostly attended by older people or relatives of the participants. Since teenagers were the dancers in the parades, you bet there were proud moms and dads making semi-professional videos of their children. Also, I heard many people just saying casually “fiera dei morti” as if that had nothing to do with death or the day of the dead, which could possibly mean that the meaning has been lost (or at least weakened) or that it’s just normal to say it, death is no taboo in Sicily. Just like older traditions that might have a dark or violent origin, time softens it to the point that the burning of a Judas dummy basically feels just like playing with a piñata.

Now, considering Sicily’s history with Etna and her eruptions (they call it Mother Etna, thus the reference as a female), the amount of times towns were destroyed, and how often ash falls down over the city, or how rain can be filled with detritus, the risk of death and destruction is very real around there. Bigger eruptions have occurred as recently as last year, but it seems that the last time injured people were reported was in 2018, same year when Catania also had its buildings affected by the event.

By the way, you can see that buildings there look sort of decrepit compared to other European cities, but then I don’t know how much of this is related to a lack of investiment in the region or just the fact that destruction is always imminent, so why bother? According to one tour guide that took us to some underground spots in Catania, it obviously wouldn’t make sense for people to stick to a city that is constantly being threatened by a volcano, but Catania has a big reserve of water. Or… had.

It turns out that, after the many eruptions and the many deaths caused by them, the groundwater was contaminated by the corpses and other detritus, so it’s not exactly usable anymore. So why are they still there? I don’t know. We all will die in the end, right? Might as well be from a heart attack, old age, a volcano eruption or a traffic accident in the chaotic streets of Sicily where zebra crossings are non-existent or just decorative.

After all, death is always at the door, so maybe it doesn’t really matter if they are partying hard on a Sunday night or if “morti” is just another word as any other else.

This essay was originally published on the newsletter Nothing here, but…, which I contribute to with links and other interesting content on a fortnightly basis.



Lidia Zuin

Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD in Visual Arts. Researcher and essayist. Technical and science fiction writer.